The banjo is a fascinating instrument. Whether it has four or five strings, is strummed or fingerpicked, the banjo is as melodic as it is percussive. Often, banjo pickers aren't at the front of the band - they're around to back up what the guitar or fiddle player are doing, only occasionally given their own room to shine with a lengthy solo. That said, though, there are plenty of great banjo-fronted instrumental tunes from throughout folk music history - traditional jams and contemporary arrangements alike. Learn more about the banjo with these five essential banjo songs.
1. "Dueling Banjos"
This classic double banjo tune was made famous by the movie "Deliverance" and, as such, is enough to send any horror film fan into a creeped-out stupor when it comes on. But, the song was written in 1955 by one Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith and was originally titled "Feudin' Banjos." It pitted a four-string banjo versus a five-stringer, and Smith recorded the original with Don Reno. But, it was this version by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell which made the tune a verifiable hit in 1973 thanks to the film. Of course, as it turned out, the film used the song without Smith's permission. But, that's still the way most people know this essential banjo v. banjo throwdown.
2. "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"
This bluegrass classic was written by the late, great Earl Scruggs and first recorded by him and Lester Flatt with the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1949. Much like the "Dueling Banjos," the "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" earned much of its success from being included in a major motion picture. In this case, it was used as background music for the film Bonnie and Clyde (though it's been used in other films since). Scruggs performed this song in Washington DC in 1969 during a Vietnam War protest and eventually won a Grammy for the composition, after recording it with Steve Martin.
3. "Cotton-Eyed Joe"
This old folk classic can be performed on any number of instruments, of course, but is easily a standard for bluegrass pickers of banjo and fiddlers old and young. The song is so popular, it now comes with its own line dance (by the same name). The dance has enjoyed its own popularity, earning feature time in the film Urban Cowboy, which sparked a renewed interest in the old folk song. Historically, "Cotton-Eyed Joe" dates back into the 19th Century in the United States. It's been performed instrumentally and with several variations on lyrical verses and has been recorded by all kinds of artists, including Burl Ives, the Chieftains with Ricky Skaggs, and the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.
4. "Cripple Creek"
Much like "Cotton-Eyed Joe," "Cripple Creek" is usually played on either the fiddle or banjo (or, with larger bands, is shared by both instruments). Its origins are unknown and nobody can even seem to agree whether it's about a location in Virginia or one by the same name in Colorado. Regardless, it's long been a staple of folk and country players alike and recordings of the song date back to the 1920s. This version was recorded by Earl Scruggs with Lester Flatt.
5. "Doggy Salt"
When it comes to contemporary banjo pickers, few can outdo the dexterity of Tony Trischka. Trischka has dabbled in a number of different styles through the years, composing all manner of songs for the banjo. But this tune from his 2007 group effort album Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular is certainly one of the more memorable tunes. He recorded it for that album with Scott Vestal.